Sat. Jun 3rd, 2023
A protester at Science March Austin shares his frustration with Lamar Smith.
Enlarge / A protester at Science March Austin shares his frustration with Lamar Smith.

Nathan Matise

Lamar Smith (R-Texas) announced today that he will retire at the end of his current term. Smith was one of the main sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was widely criticized for the powers it would give companies to resolve copyright infringement. For the past five years, he has chaired the House Science Committee, interfering with peer review at the National Science Foundation and falling out with NOAA for refusing to accept the evidence for climate change.

Smith represents Texas’ 21st district, which includes huge swaths of rural Texas along with small slices of both Austin and San Antonio. He was first elected in 1987, meaning he will have served more than three decades by the time he retires. His retirement was announced in an email to his staff obtained by the Texas grandstand. His staff later confirmed to reporters that the email was genuine.

Smith vs. the Internet

Smith’s seniority enabled him to assume the presidency of several congressional committees, and he used that platform in a way that has drawn much criticism. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Smith introduced SOPA. The bill would also have given rights holders the power to get court orders barring advertising services and credit card companies from doing business with infringing websites, and requiring domain name server providers to blacklist sites hosting infringing content. It would also have enabled the government to obtain court orders requiring search services to stop displaying links to websites hosting infringing content. As such, it was opposed by many tech companies and ultimately failed after a huge public outcry.

But Smith rose to prominence for his ongoing feuds with federal science agencies and the scientists who work there. Shortly after becoming chairman of the House Science Committee, Smith entered a long-running conflict with the National Science Foundation (NSF), apparently over funding of social science research that he and other Republicans objected to. In 2013, Smith held up grants in this area as examples of wasteful spending and introduced a bill that would require the NSF to declare that all its grants were in the “national interest.” Similar bills were introduced every year for the next few years, but they were not adopted by the Senate. Budget allocations were included in some versions, reducing funding for social science research to the NSF.

At the same time, Smith focused on the review process that approved the grants he didn’t like. Grant evaluation is conducted anonymously by researchers who are considered experts in the relevant fields. Smith demanded that the NSF turn over all documents related to the NSF’s decision to fund specific grants, including “paper copies of the following public records: every email, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message, all collegiate reviews considered for selection and recommendations made by the research panel to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or any document related to the NSF’s consideration and approval of the grants listed below, including any approved amendments to the grants. the peer reviewers, to which the NSF objected.

Smith vs. NOAA

But Smith’s attention later turned to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. NOAA is one of two federal agencies that maintains an ongoing analysis of Earth’s surface temperatures (NASA is the other), a crucial piece of evidence that our planet is warming. Smith, perhaps through his participation in climate skeptic conferences, became convinced that a brief period of slower warming at the beginning of this century represented a pause in climate change. NOAA scientists then had the misfortune of updating the agency’s temperature record using improved data, a change that eliminated any statistical hint of a warming slowdown.

Smith became convinced that the change amounted to fraudulent data manipulation, even though the updated data being used had been published much earlier. He also believed that the paper’s release was timed to influence international climate negotiations, even though NOAA had no control over when the magazine Science released the study. So he began subpoenaing NOAA scientists and their emails, hoping to find evidence of what he was already convinced was fraud. (The research community, meanwhile, was already providing evidence that Smith had no idea what he was talking about.)

NOAA responded by offering to meet scientists with him, pointing out the availability of all the data underlying the analysis. But Smith insisted the emails would reveal fraud, and he never gave up chasing them.

Meanwhile, Smith pursued a broader anti-climate science agenda. At a hearing earlier this year, Smith claimed that when it comes to climate research, “scientists all too often ignore the basics of science.” the evidence doesn’t support it.” Meanwhile, the House Science Committee’s Twitter account gleefully shared links to totally misinformed Breitbart articles on climate change. Smith’s motivations for these attacks became apparent when he tried to interfere with state investigations into fossil fuel companies.

In any event, Smith would step down from chairing this committee at the end of his term. And while his absence may make the House Science Committee a little less hostile to science, it’s likely that the general direction will be similar when he’s succeeded by current Vice Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). Lucas bragged about his opposition to the EPA’s role in international climate deals, and his 2016 voting record received a zero score from the League of Conservation Voters.

Frame image by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

By akfire1

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